The year is nineteen-sixty-something, and after endless millennia of watery sleep, the stars are finally right. Old R'lyeh rises out of the Pacific, ready to cast its damned shadow over the primitive human world. The first to see its peaks: an alcoholic, paranoid, and frightened Jack Kerouac, who had been drinking off a nervous breakdown up in Big Sur. Now Jack must get back on the road to find Neal Cassady, the holy fool whose rambling letters hint of a world brought to its knees in worship of the Elder God Cthulhu. Together with pistol-packin' junkie William S. Burroughs, Jack and Neal make their way across the continent to face down the murderous Lovecraftian cult that has spread its darkness to the heart of the American Dream. But is Neal along for the ride to help save the world, or does he want to destroy it just so that he'll have an ending for his book?
Move Under Ground was nominated for both the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards for Best First Novel, and has been translated into German and Greek.
My first novel, which combines Lovecraftian themes with the voice of narrator and hero Jack Kerouac. A Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild nominee, and one of the few novels to get positive reviews from both Fangoria and the academic, postmodern American Fiction Review. Weird, huh? Yeah, it's weird. – Nick Mamatas
"In this tour de force, which is Mamatas' first novel, the Beats meet the elder gods of H. P. Lovecraft, and a harrowing time is had by all…Mamatas virtuosically parodies Kerouac's pell-mell On the Road style, but Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Exterminator, minus the outre sex, are more obvious templates for this wild, weird, woolly romp."– Booklist
"The American dream reveals itself to be a Lovecraftian nightmare in Mamatas's audacious first novel, set in the early 1960s, which goes on the road with Kerouac, Cassaday and Cthulhu.…He gives quaint cameos to Allen Ginsburg as a sewer-trolling prophet and William S. Burroughs as a god-swatting exterminator extraordinaire. He also manages a credible pastiche of Kerouac's visionary prose, as in this description of Manhattan: "The heart of the world, concrete and fleshy, green money pouring in and out from every corner of earth through arteries of commerce and culture, all choked up and poisoned with the madness of dead gods' dreams." Though Lovecraft reduxes are common in horror, few show the wit and energy of this original effort."– Publishers Weekly
I was in Big Sur hiding from my public when I finally heard from Neal again. He had had problems of his own after the book came out and it started being carried around like a rosary by every scruffy party boy looking for a little cross-country hitchhiking adventure. They'd followed him around like they'd followed me, but Neal drank too deeply of the well at first, making girls left and right as usual, taking a few too many shots to the face, and eating out on the story of our travels maybe one too many times. Those boozy late-night dinners with crazy soulless characters whose jaws clacked like mandibles when they laughed are what got to him in the end, I'm sure. They were hungry for something. Not just the college boys and beautiful young things, but those haggard-looking veterans of Babylon who started shadowing Neal and me on every street corner and at every dawn-draped last call in roadside bars; they all wanted more than a taste of Neal's divine spark, they wanted to extinguish it in their gullets. Neal was the perfect guy for them as he always walked on the edge, ever since the first shiv was held to his throat at reform school when he was a seven-year-old babe with a fat face and shiny teary cheeks. He wanted to eat up the whole world himself like they did, I knew from my adventures on the road with him, but I didn't learn what was eating him 'til I got that letter that drove me to move under ground.
The letters had become more infrequent while I was out on Big Sur living in Larry's little cabin, due to me at first, I thought. I was working on my spontaneous writing, which sounds a bit contradictory but discoveries need to be plumbed, not just noted, and I was turning out roll after roll of pages about the stark black cliffs and how it felt that the world wasn't just shifting under my feet but how I was sure one day I'd end up standing still while the big blue marble just rolled out from under me to leave me hanging over the inky maw of the universe. I didn't take breaks except to pick my way into town every week or ten days to get some supplies: potatoes and beans, some cooking oil, whiskey, chaw, more rolls of paper which came in special just for me thanks to Larry, and stamps and my mail. Letters, only three were from Neal, most from mother and my aunt and one or two from my agent with checks so big I couldn't even cash them but instead had to sell them for a dime on the dollar to the one-eyed shopkeeper at the general store that held my mail for me. By that time I could hardly stand to hear anyone's voice so I never spent more than a few hours in town, just enough to do my errands, get my socks washed by the old unsmiling Chinaman and wolf down some cherry pie with ice cream. Even the great belly laughs of the old-timers who had shuffled up from Los Angeles when the strawberry crops had turned black on the vine grated on me when I heard them now, but those curlicue swirls on Memere's letters were soothing and stainless like the sky. I'd read them as I'd hike back up to the cabin, smoking a great Cuban just to have some light to read by if I didn't get home before dark.
Neal's letters were something else altogether, and he was still something else, too, as the kids say. The first letter was typical Neal, full of big plans to play connect-the-dots between girls and writers. "Oh dearest Jack," he wrote to me, "once you're all settled and have ironed up after your latest crack-up I'll come down from San Fran in Carolyn's father's great old battleship of a car, then drive right back up the coast in reverse through Oregon where the trees hold up the vault of the sky. Then we can tour Vancouver; it's a wet warm pocket of life up in those frozen wastes and I know Carolyn has a friend named Suzette you might like as she is very deep into Spengler . . . " and he'd spin more and more of his golden grift. I'd read his old letters over and over 'til the ink ran off the wrinkled page but only once got around to writing him back. It was too hard to think, being lost in the words of his letters, but they were the only things that kept the horrible roar of the ocean against the cliffs from overwhelming me. No matter what, I couldn't find the Buddha in the rhythmic crashing of the waves anymore, so instead I drank myself into concrete unconsciousness.
In Neal's second letter, the empty spaces between existence became a bit more clear. He could feel it too, how the world was pulling itself apart somehow, and how some dark dream had begun to ooze into the American cracks. He didn't need to say it; Neal was always best understood between the lines. "Far be it from me to suggest that two old Catholic boys take off their clothes, scramble down the bluffs and toss themselves into the foam just to stain the waves red for a precious heartbeat of a moment all to gain the attention of some Three-Lobed Burning Eye, but even when I'm nestled between Billie's legs taking in her fecund smell, I just feel that we ought to . . . " he wrote, but I knew he meant something else. He was trying to stitch something together; he had some weird forlorn hope that he could save the world from what we both could feel was lurking in the Outer Deep. Usually, I thought of smiling old Neal catting between wife and girlfriend, grinning and pretending to write, misunderstanding Nietzsche in the most brilliant of ways, but now I could only conceive of him as some blind fly picking his way along highway webbing. I didn't write him a letter back after that. Not at first.
I wrote at him though, on my old Clark Nova, the one Bill had sent me from Tangiers along with a cryptic note of his own about the little adding machine spring his family fortune was based on. "It only has one end(ing)" he wrote in his junky scrawl and drew me a swirl that I couldn't look at for long without blacking out. So I wrote to Neal, and to Bill too, but through my novel, not ever in letter form. I wrote 'til the letters on the keys were stamped in my pink blood, long scrolls of philosophy and gin-stewed sex, and I'd take the rolls out to the bush, kick my way to the rocky cliff and roll my scroll down to the shore like a challenge to that Dark Dreamer waiting for us all out in the Pacific. He didn't blink. I'd roll the paper back up, take it home and add it back to the pile of scrolls along one of the walls of the cabin. The air smelled sour for Big Sur. I imagined the old gang could read the display even in the spiritual night and fog—which me and Neal and Bill and maybe even Larry and Allen had all been swimming through (but just a touch on those two, Larry being too much the businessman and Allen too degraded and attached to sodomy to really hear The Call).
When I ran out of paper, which was often enough because I could hardly get it into town to get more and because Larry was just nonplused at what seemed to be my output and could hardly keep up with my needs, I meditated and spoke the mantra of Kilaya 'til my throat cracked like August bark. It was Kilaya: the three-headed demon with bat wings who was converted to the protection of the dharma by the compassion of a wise old lama on a hilltop not too different from the one I was on, who came to me as a pale redhead with great loose curls of hair like a forest fi re. She had an excellent belly laugh for a little thing (her ribs were like a pile of sticks) and she whispered in my ear, "College boy. College boy, you look so kind and decent," and made little whirls in my own dark hair with a finger. I worshipped her for two weeks and fell asleep to her whimpering up against my chest. We didn't even need to build a fi re or light one of the old blubber lamps Larry had lying around in the dust of his cabin; her skin glowed like holy lightning. I made her three times a night and forgot all about the winedark waves hammering against the shattered cliff face for a few days at least.
She was a humble girl, like deities should be, and humored me by frying up the salt pork and licking thick sour mash off the side of my bottle hours after I'd spilled some, and she even pretended that I was ready to go back to New York with the three hundred dollars I was saving in the crack between logs in the wall against which I stacked all my scrolls for insulation against the wind. "You could buy a car," she'd say happily, a kicky little roadster and take the direct route back to Neal, who was probably just there waiting for me in Washington Square Park. I called her Marie. Marie smelled of sage and crushed grapes and told me that I wasn't long for the world, but not because I'd be going anywhere. I'd have to go somewhere in order to save the world, she said, then she'd pull me back down onto our little mattress and kiss me so hard it was like swallowing an ocean of her. It was a languid week of attachment. I couldn't so much as leave sight of the cabin for fear that Marie would be gone when I returned, even as she warned me again and again that I'd soon be on the road. It was a test of my strength and I was failing miserably 'til I ran out of liquor and finally had to roll back into town to get supplies.
Neal's third letter was waiting for me. It was a package of a roll of paper like Larry sent me, but this one was covered on both sides with writing, some typewritten, much of it scrawled in lead, pen or blood. Much of it was smeared but I didn't wait to read it. I hiked back up the little dirt path to the cabin on the bluff with the scroll in my hands, the paper tossed over my shoulder and unwinding in the dust I kicked up behind me. It was some brilliant stuff, a melding of past and present and dark future. Bill doing his old William Tell routine in a fi t of Mexican madness. Me and him in Denver, trying to throw a party. Some haiku. My haiku. The scroll was my writing, at least forty percent of it, transmitted across the aether, painstakingly copied in blood and cut-up between paragraphs and sentences, buried under Neal's own blabbering about Al-Azif and the mad blind tentacle-bearded spawn of the Dreamer of the Deep who were waiting for their old god, nearly dead, to rise again. This could only mean one thing. I had to get to San Francisco. Neal probably wouldn't even be there, but maybe Larry or some benny-addled homosexual would have seen him on the streets, shivering with DTs like a dowsing rod close to a salty marsh and headed somewhere where I could find him.
I tore up to the cabin and threw Neal's roll into the fi re where it went up in a belch of black slime and smoke. Marie was there sitting in a full lotus, back arced and humble little breasts presented for me, but I couldn't even bring myself to turn to her. If I did, I'd succumb to attachment. I went to my own wall of scrolls and started taking it apart to get the cash I'd hidden in the cracks of the cabin wall, but found only green and brown shreds of the stuff, wet pulp and rat droppings. I swallowed the curse because bodhisattva was watching and managed to calmly worm a few tired bills, the ones just nibbled a bit, out of the wall. Seventeen dollars. I'd gone further on less, and I grabbed a random scroll for New York to slice into domesticated pages; they could wire the money to Larry for me while I hunted for Neal. Marie transformed into a honeybee, and buzzed a sutra into my ear as I packed my little rucksack. We left together out the door, she hovering about my collar, whispering wisdom and secret knowledge directly to my brain. I didn't even lock up the cabin behind me. The bee once named Marie, also the bodhisattva Kilaya, zig-zagged off in every direction at once.
The day was hot and I was slick with sweat even before I got to the highway. Blisters formed and burst on my soles, then the wounds swirled with my salty perspiration. It was only a mile and a half to the road, but I had been lazy with fat sex and ambrosia for nearly ten days, and played a haggard beatnik bank clerk chained to my typewriter for the month prior, so it was a harder stroll than I remembered. The woods were against me too. A canopy of leaves collapsed into a ditch here, a root grabbed my ankle and set me flying like a jiujitsu move from a Navy buddy there. I came across a squirrel drowned in a stagnant puddle, and it looked at me like only a wetsack rodent carcass could. Don't screw this one up its black pebble eye said to me, and when you can stare a dead squirrel in the eye and hear it demand a promise from you while even the mosquitoes hover in the air and wait for your answer, you know you got some serious headaches ahead.
The highway was white and near-deserted. Big Sur had become a bit of what some tin-eared newspaperman would call a Mecca for kids looking for real live Beats and the orgies and nitrous parties that were always supposed to swirl up from the rot in our wake, but that didn't last long. Once the newspapermen got wind of it and sectioned our little land off to sell to the public, the tourists came. And after the tourists, the families came in their huge station wagons stuffed with kids screaming for ice cream and white-tile bathrooms and they'd never stop for you, not for one of those crazy beatniks they'd come to see.
Maybe once in a long while you could catch a ride from a lone man. They were the same guys who had souped up their wagons and took to the road at eighty miles an hour, bursting from the wavy horizon just to see how far they could go without even tapping their brakes. Five years later though, their paperbacks were in some attic trunk and old poems ashes and they'd turned to breeding for the goddamn race. No longer could I catch a ride from these mindslave men, though I occasionally caught their eyes as they slowed, tempted as they were to pull over, kick the wife out and load me in for a wild ride up to The City. They were the guys in the short-sleeved button-up shirts, the men with sunglasses pushed up to the tops of their noses, with their arms leaning on the window well of their car doors just to get a little breeze, just so that they could stare into the sun for a moment longer and forget about the mortgage and the PTA and their goddamn uncle-in-law the John Bircher who wanted to set them up fi ne with a job selling aluminum siding to their own fellow chained oarsmen. But they drove past and turned to their little wives and said "Ah, there's one," and left me to curse on the asphalt.
And it being a hot July afternoon, none of the truckers were ready to stop for me when they could just pull over three miles uproad and guzzle down a gallon of ice water or chilled Cokes along with a pork chop and half a beer, so I put the late-setting sun on my left and started hoofing north on the bloody balls of my feet, thumb out. I walked on, waving my thumb at the empty ghost of a road, occasionally swigging some water from my canteen. It was rough in my bloody boots; now my ankles were chafed as well. I balanced the rucksack on my head to keep the sun off of it, but that didn't help, and the straps had already dug into my shoulders, so I took to swinging it, tossing it twenty yards in front of me, and then leisurely strolling over just to pick the sack up. No wonder I wasn't getting any nibbles from the few folks who did drive by.
It got dark fast; there was hardly any dusk at all. And behind me, I heard the roar of a convoy, but they weren't old trucks coming my way. Instead, it was wagons, sedans, curvy Studebakers, and even a few old crank cars with rumble seats and shivering fabric roofs. Town cars driving five abreast in tight formation across only two lanes of highway, eating up the shoulders, headlights suddenly blazing a terrible, beautiful amber. I cut into the wood and watched them zoom past from a little ditch I happened to fall into. Above the narrow, mud-stained alley I was in, the collective purr of the motorcars choked themselves silent. There were hundreds of cars, it seemed, all stinking of fumes thick enough to cover the scent of the wet leaves I picked out of my teeth and ears. I hustled backwards, lost my rucksack, found it again and fell hard, banging my kneecap like a cymbal. I heard a dozen doors slam behind me, and limped a bit, rucksack in my arm football-style, to put some space and trees between me and whoever that horrible Them was looking for me. The rim of the highway was a ribbon of gleaming off-the-lot paintjobs, even on the oldest cars. Men and a few women, all in their Sunday best including too-hot-for-summertime stoles and those insipid little flowered hats, tromped down into the brush after me, all silent but for crackling branches. Not a "Ho there," or a "Do ya see 'im, Mildred? Do you see the man they say runs the orgies?" and not even an "Ow, I fell into a ditch." Just eerie inexorable marching. I feinted right then veered left, poked under a shield of roots from a tree blown half out of the ground, then cut right again.
And they tumbled after me, a little army of Boris Karloffs and Elsa Lanchesters run through the projector at double speed, herky-jerky, often falling and sliding down a streak of mud, or just wildly but silently smacking branches out of the way on their way down. One man, all white shirt belly and lippy grin was right on top of me, and with a wild but damn quiet leap jumped off the rock he was perched on and sailed over my head. He landed hard enough that my ankles felt it, but without a grunt or so much as a look back at me, he smashed his way deeper into the forest, heading down to the bluffs.
I decided on a little experiment. I stood still, but kept the straps of my little rucksack wrapped around my fist and wrist in case I needed a weapon, and let them come at me. A woman was first—she was huffing like a smoker but was calm-eyed even as she ran up to my chest and smacked into me. She slid off me sweatily with just a half step and kept right on running. She didn't even raise a hand to adjust her little hat, so it fell off and I reached down to snatch it up just to have another little twig of a girl plant a dainty foot on my kidneys and then hop off of me. I grunted hard, but nobody heard or noticed. Then I stood up, wound up my arm and slammed the next fellow I saw right in the side of the face with my sack. I heard the tinny-tin ting of my canteen bounce off his chinny chin chin but even this joe didn't turn to face me. He just kept on, his split lip making his smile a lopsided leer, like one of Neal's after a three-day nod. I shouldered my sack, cracked my toes (the poor little piggies were swimming in bloody sweat now), and started easing my way down into the dark of the woods beyond the headlights and ran straight into Dreamland.
It was still woods at first, but woods of a different sort. Cacti were everywhere, scratching me with steel syringes as I passed; then snaking ivy slid over my poor tired boots. I yelped loud and danced away from them, and the rose-red buds opened and hissed at me. The well-dressed gentry nearest my little Mr. Bojangles routine had taken to galloping along on their haunches and knuckles, but a few further away from me were still holding their heads high, like it was time to tell a hotel bellboy what for. They glowed like swamp gas and I could see their faces clearly after I blinked away my sweaty tears. They were hungry. Every one of the souls around me had that hungry fear painted cross their faces. The fear of a whore who just lost a tooth and a little bit more of her looks to a pimp slap. Hungry like little Charles Ma f lling his opium pipe while sitting crossbones-style up on a palette on the Oakland piers. Not hungry for anything, the way Neal was when I'd met him, when we spoke about writing or when I watched him amble off towards some college girl with knitted stockings and a tucked-up copy of The Militant under the crook of her arm, but hungry for nothing. Nothingness. Not even the peaceful touch of Buddha's palm, or the deepest sleep I had on Marie's shoulder just a night ago, but a great big horrible nothing, the nothing that can't stand to be defined by the some things floating around on in it. Then the forest around me, queer as it was already, pulsed and twisted into something else entirely.
The tree in front of me was jelly. I guess jelly, or ectoplasm or liquid aether, a huge pillar of it I'd say, if pillars were made up of slabs of living lard. It wobbled and touched my mind, poking through history and poetry to scoop out the thought-form of lost Terry, the little Mexican girl I made for a few weeks. We had lived in a tent and waited around for her brothers to get me a job collecting manure and selling it to the local cotton farmers, but then I got the itch and headed out on the road again. And now she was there before me. Nipples like brown plums, quiet eyes and little cesarean scars running up her tender belly. For a wrong moment I followed my desire, and her face exploded into a huge gaping Venus flytrap mouth with tentacled teeth. Sweet Jesus, if my boot heel didn't pick that very serendipitous second to split and land me on my derrière, I'd have been meat that night and fertilizer today. But I fell under the snapping and squiggling mouth and kicked hard at Terry's knee. Top-heavy from the snapping head, now atop a whipping stalk of a neck, she fell backwards, but was replaced. A huge wall of Neal's faces, some smiling, some winking, others distracted and even bored rolled up to me. I skittered backwards on my palms, but sweet earth betrayed me, turning warm and viscous then collapsing into a pit. The thought-forms were shambling towards me now, a mass of Neals and Memeres and my poor old brother like he would have looked had he been grown. The coach from damn Columbia and Allen too and stupid Chad and Terry's brother Chavo, and goddamn even Marie with preying mantis limbs as long as she, they were all there surrounding me, with snake bodies or flat snake faces simply plopped atop cockroach legs.
Shapeshifters. The formless given form by thought or evil deed. Shoggoth. I knew the word now, somehow, but not from some half-remembered bongo drum poem or off the back of a jar of Ovaltine. Marie-The-Bee had told me on the way out the door, bless her. Stilt-Marie sliced a wandering churchlady in half with a swipe of scythe-arm, and chittered at me, but I couldn't hear her over the splattered meat smacking into what I might as well call the ground. And then I remembered the buzz in my ear from when I left the cabin and the sweet perfume of green grape and sage.
The Master had gathered the students into the courtyard one day and held aloft a butcher's knife, a simple and base act that alone would require a week of ritual cleansing. Worse, then, he drew his other hand from behind his back and held up a cat by the scruff of its neck.
"Stop me," Master said, "from killing this cat. Stop me from performing this base act of barbarism."
The timid semi-circle of saffron-robed students looked up at Master in stunned silence, and with a practiced move, Master lopped off the cat's head. It fell to the ground like an overripe pomegranate. And it came to pass that later a student who had been out gathering alms returned to the temple and, hearing the gossip of the day, confronted his Master.
"And what would you have done?" the Master asked.
The student took off his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked backwards from the room.
Master called after him, "You would have saved the cat!"
So when false Marie dipped her head low into the pit and unhinged her jaw to show me her long tongue with its little face, its little scowling General Eisenhower face, I did the absurd thing and took her cheeks into my hands and rubbed my lips against her hanging horselip. I stroked her wet straw hair and whispered "Oh Marie, sweet sweet Marie," and soulkissed the shoggoth. She melted in my arms. Really. A keening rose up from among the rest of them, and the slick jelly under my feet once again turned to rocky earth. Some retreated, others gave up the ghost entirely and just imploded, sucking themselves into their own pits of dark nothing. Poor Marie sizzled and smoked around me, making my pores tingle. She was trying to gain a more physical entré, but I was safe for now. The fog that enveloped me smelled of landfill, and it felt for a long moment that I was in between. Not Dreamland, not old terra firma, just the waking-up-in-the-morning world of blurry shapes and voices. Then the sun pierced the fog, with great holy rays. It was dawn. I was alone again, right at the edge of the bluffs. I felt the ocean on my face.
It took me only a few minutes to scramble down the shore where I found the squares again. They were dead, to a man and woman. Some bashed against the rocks after a great fall, others bobbed in the surf, face-down, bloated and burnt all at once. A few dozen of them there were, maybe a hundred, all in the fi nest clothing they had, all drifting out to sea or caught up in jaws of stone and muddy sand. I stood out on the jetty and watched a few of the carcasses, fat from TV dinners and Organization Man jobs, float out into the drink. I sat and watched them for a long time while the sun rose behind me and painted the Pacific, red, then gold, then deepest blue. I ate an apple from my rucksack and glanced around, to see if anyone had left behind a purse or a wallet, some identification. I wasn't ready to make like a vulture and pick at these poor souls quite yet.
Hard to notice at first, but the tide was heavier than I expected. Waves pushed up over the rocks, claiming the bodies on the shore. I had to retreat from the jetty and hustle back up the cliff. The waters rose higher than I'd ever seen them, and I looked out to the horizon to see why.
The island was huge, or close, or somehow in a warp of space like a mirage. Miles out to sea but right up against my face in the same instant, I could see the hideous swirls and cut runes on well-worn granite ruins and the whole line of the shore at once. Craggly harbors lined not with boats, but with slick lobster-squid. Thick slabs of stone atop strata of crushed bone, the bedchamber of an Elder God. No gulls circled its beaches, no trees lived there or even stood defiant in petrified death. Even the crumbled doorways had been built for something other than Earthmen. Between me and it, there was only a short boat ride's worth of sea and a trail of white bodies, drifting towards their new dead home.
R'lyeh is risen.